Docket Information and Court Filings
Background and Terminology
Court dockets contain all materials filed by the court or by any party (including amicus curiae) in a court proceeding. In general, courts assign each newly filed action with a docket number, which often refers to the year in which the case was commenced followed by a sequential reference number, and sometimes includes letters or numbers indicating the type (civil, criminal, family court, etc.) or location of filing and/or the initials of the judge to whom the case is assigned. For example, a federal district court docket number may sometimes be given in a form such as 3:04cv04321 ABC(XYZ). In this hypothetical case, the 3 indicates a filing location (one of the courthouses within the district), and the rest of the number indicates the initial papers in the action were filed in 2004, it is a civil action, it was the 4,321st such case commenced in that court during that year, and the case was assigned to a judge with the initials ABC and to a magistrate judge with the initials XYZ. You may sometimes see such a docket number shortened to the form 04cv4321 or even 04-4321.
Once the action is commenced, courts usually maintain a docket sheet (sometimes called a register of actions or other terminology) for each action; this is a chronological list noting the date and caption or description of each paper filed in the action (whether entered by the court - such as a minute order, memorandum decision ruling - or by parties and others - such as motions and briefs, and supporting affidavits or declarations and exhibits). Individual documents are typically given a sequential docket item number. This number is noted in a column on the docket sheet list, along with the filing date on which the party or other person filed the document as well as the date of entry (on which the court clerk created the entry in the docket sheet describing the filed document).
Docket files are maintained throughout the pendency of an action and after final disposition of the action. However, not all docket materials are available online. This research guide suggests some ways to check for docket information or documents online, for both the state and federal court systems.
Free Online Resources
High profile cases - In high-profile cases or impact litigation cases that may be of wide interest, attorneys or other interested parties may post selected materials from the docket files on the open web. Other than general search engine searches using the party names, document title (e.g., "memorandum of points and authorities in support of defendants' motion for summary judgment"), and/or docket number, consider the following specific resources:
- If a public interest organization that is involved with case (including organizations involved in amicus briefs) has submitted a filing or is following the case, try the organization's site - e.g.,
- If the case is currently pending (or very recent) AND is a high profile matter, the court itself may make some documents from the docket available online, free of charge - e.g.(some recent examples),
- United States District Court, Northern District of California - This court's home page has a "Cases of Interest" section that lists links to case pages regarding high profile cases such as United States v. Bonds (Barry Bonds steroid use case) and Perry v. Schwarzenegger (the challenge to California Proposition 8)
Cases in the Supreme Court of California - A joint project by the Stanford Law School Library and Justia hosts a publicly accessible, free online database of selected documents, including some documents that may not be freely available via the Court's website, called SCOCAL.
- Start by entering basic search terms in the box (at the upper right side of the screen) on the home page, and then narrow down the search once the initial results appear, by clicking on "advanced search."
- You can use the basic search box to search by party names or docket number (e.g., S056364).
- The search will include finding language from the underlying filed documents in the database.
- When viewing the record of a particular case, click on the Docket tab to see the docket sheet, and on the Briefs tab to see any documents filed by the parties that are available from this database.
Court-Sponsored Online Resources
Public Access to Court Electronic Records is the federal court system's system for fee-based online access to docket sheets and many of the underlying full-text documents. The basic cost is $.08 per page. You will need your own account - see PACER registration page for further information - neither the Library nor the Law School maintains a password for use by Library patrons.
Scope of coverage - Different courts implemented the PACER system at different times and not all pre-existing cases were added to the system. For a basic summary of the date range covered in each court, go to the PACER Case Locator and click on the “Court Information” tab at the top of the screen.
Finding identifying information - Use the PACER Case Locator to search nationwide to determine whether a party is or has been involved in litigation in the U.S. district, bankruptcy or appellate courts, or to search for a specific case for which you have some but not all identifying information (party names, docket number, jurisdiction, etc.).
- Use “Advanced Search” for the most search options - the question mark icons will give you information on the acceptable formats to use in a given field.
- You can do a general search by region (such as federal circuit or individual state).
- You can limit your search by type, including bankruptcy, civil, criminal, or Multi-District Litigation cases
Finding documents in a specific case - If you know the court (e.g., Northern District of California) and docket number or have found it using the PACER Case Locator, use that court's PACER site to get the docket sheet or to download any electronically available documents.
- If you have access to a subscription resource that includes PACER data, searching those services' versions of PACER information may save you time and money on the PACER system by enabling you to search on PACER using very specific information such as the filing date or docket item number of the particular document you want to download.
- To find your court's PACER site, use PACER's Court Links portal page. Note - the court's site may give you a choice of using the Electronic Case Filing (ECF) system to submit documents or using PACER to retrieve documents; ECF a separate is generally for parties involved in the litigation and use of such systems is not covered in this guide or needed for downloading filings from PACER - simply choose the PACER option.
After entering your personal PACER login information, choose either "Reports" or "Query" in the menu bar at the top:
- Use Reports if you already have the case (docket) number (e.g., from searching the PACER Case Locator) and want to see the docket activity and/or obtain underlying documents - choose Docket Sheets and enter the case's docket number (e.g., C-07-04771).
- To save on costs, you can limit the report length by specifying the filing or entry dates, or the Document Number (docket item number), of a particular item or range of items you want to see, and you can uncheck the boxes for displaying the parties and attorneys in the case.
- The docket sheet you pull up will show docket item numbers, the entry or filing date, and a short description of the document. Documents available for downloading will have a clickable link as the docket item number.
- Use Query to research claims, types of cases, or parties involved in litigation filed in this particular court. The result will be a list of captions and docket numbers for any cases that satisfy the criteria you specify in your Query; to obtain docket sheets or documents from those actions, follow the above instructions for Reports.
State Court Dockets
Online availability of docket sheets and underlying documents varies greatly from state to state and court to court.
For California trial, appellate and supreme court docket information, go to the individual court's website. A list of links to each court's website is maintained by the California court system's Find My Court page.
In general, if the particular court makes docket sheets or the underlying electronic documents available online, there will be a link or tab on the home page to access the search page - look for a link or tab for "Case Information," "Online Case Search" or similar wording. Practice varies widely, e.g. -
- Superior Court, Alameda County - DomainWeb tab (DomainWeb is a service that provides online access on a fee basis)
- Superior Court, Contra Costa County - Case Files & Records > Online Case Information
- Superior Court, San Francisco County - Online Services (two choices under Case Inquiries)
- 1st District Court of Appeal (located in San Francisco) > click Case Information button
Several private subscription resources provide access to federal docket sheets from PACER (see above), as well as to selected state dockets on a court-by-court basis. Note, however, that the data provided on Westlaw and Lexis is updated less frequently - typically on a monthly versus daily basis - so for recent activity, use Bloomberg, PACER or the relevant state court's online system directly instead.
The Bloomberg Law dockets database is the most user-friendly subscription resource available to Boalt faculty and students who need access to docket sheets and the underlying filings. To register for a login to this database, Boalt students and faculty can contact Michael Levy at firstname.lastname@example.org; we cannot provide logins to non-Boalt affiliates.
To begin your docket search - click on "Dockets" at the top of Bloomberg Law's home page, and then click on "Docket Search" in the gray bar that appears directly underneath "Dockets". You have many search options. Here are a few tips:
- Courts: To search in a particular court, enter the name of the court in the "Courts" box (e.g., for the federal Northern District of California, enter "northern district california" or "nd cal" and select from the auto-complete menu that drops down); or click on the "Browse" button to choose a court. If you choose a federal district court an additional box will open at the bottom of the screen allowing more search options, including search by "Ticker" name.
- Keywords: Click on "Search Operators" for help in constructing a keyword search.
- Docket Number: Because every state court uses different formatting it is hard to search state courts by docket number. For federal courts, enter the 2 digit year, then a dash, and then the 5 digit number after the case type letters (such as "cv"), using lead zeroes if needed to make a 5-digit number (e.g., 3:09-cv-4864-SC would become 09-04864).
- Party Options: Click on the arrow next to the "Role" search box to limit your search to plaintiff, defendant, etc. Click on the green "plus" sign to add addtional party names.
- Include: "Docket & Proceedings" searches the full text of the available docket sheets and any underlying documents that have been retrieved by Bloomberg (note that this may be only a small selection of documents filed in a case). To search only the docket sheets click on the arrow and select "Dockets Only".
Updating Dockets - Once you have retrieved a docket sheet, be sure to note the "Update Docket" link above the docket sheet. The date on which your docket was last updated is underlined at the top of the sheet. To view changes and additions to the sheet since this date, click on "Update Docket" and then click on "Submit". View the results by going to your email inbox associated with your Bloomberg account.
Viewing underlying documents - Once you have retrieved a docket sheet, you can view some underlying documents by using the docket item numbers. These appear as chronologically assigned numbers on the far left side of the docket sheet.
If the number is blue, this means that the item has already been retrieved and can be viewed immediately by clicking on the number.
If the number is green -
- Federal cases: either the item is electronically available but not yet retrieved, or it is not electronically available at all - the only way to tell is to request the document. Click on the green number, and a box will pop up. Click on "Submit" (the dialog box may ask for a client matter number; if so, leave this blank and simply click "Submit") and then check the result by going to your email inbox associated with your Bloomberg account. If the item is electronically available, you will receive an email from Bloomberg with a link to it. Otherwise the email will read "The document you have requested requires a courier to retrieve". This courier service is not available under Boalt's academic subscription.
- State cases: if the number is green, the item is not electronically available from Bloomberg Law.
Coverage - Click on "Coverage" on the gray bar at the top of the screen. On the U.S. map that appears, click on any state to see available federal and state courts from that state (note that this only indicates if any docket information is available; time period coverage information is not offered). “Docket-Only Electronic” means that only the docket sheet is available, and underlying documents from the court in question are not electronically available.
Foreign and International Dockets - Selected coverage is available for the European Union, the United Kingdom, Jersey, the Cayman Islands, Hong Kong, and Canada. Click on the "Browse" button next to the "Courts" search box and you will see tabs for the EU and the other available foreign jurisdictions.
Westlaw & Westlaw Next (WLN)
Both docket sheets and selected documents from the docket files are available, but in separate databases. The docket sheet alone can be useful for locating details or confirming the existence of a filed document before using PACER or other services to get the document. After identifying the document you want to view, you can check within Westlaw to see if it is available, and if not, proceed to PACER, Bloomberg or another service to obtain it.
View docket sheets only - To search Westlaw docket information, select "Directory" from the top row on the Westlaw screen and look for the category "Litigation"; click on the link for "Dockets" and select your jurisdiction or court. On WLN, click "Dockets" on the "All Content" tab, and if desired, apply jurisdictional or other limits.
On Westlaw, the default search is a Template search, but a Terms & Connectors tab is also available; on WLN, the equivalent of Template searching is called Advanced Search, but you can simply type docket number, party names or search terms into the search box. Tips for searching:
- Docket numbers: try omitting the case type indicator (often letters indicating civil or criminal matters), lead zeroes on case number, and/or the judge's initials at end of number (e.g., C-07-04771 EDL becomes 07-4771). Docket number styles vary widely between federal and state systems and from court to court.
- Key Nature of Suit: use caution in applying this filter. The KNOS is used in Westlaw (not WLN) and is based on a required Nature of Suit checkbox on the civil cover sheet filed at the commencement of any civil action in federal court; the filing attorney can check only one box and will usually choose one that most closely reflects the central claim, but there may be many other claims, and the descriptions are somewhat subjective. Thus, a suit under the Alien Tort Statute could be classified as a suit for personal injury, an action under federal statute - other, civil rights, or several other headings.
- Caveat: Keep in mind you are searching only the language appearing in the docket sheet, which consists mostly of document captions, not the full text of the underlying documents; descriptions may vary in wording and level of detail - e.g., a complaint brought under the Alien Tort Statutes might be styled a "Complaint for Damages under Alien Tort Statute" or simply "Cmplt" in the docket sheet so searching for the phrase "Alien Tort Statute" may not bring up all relevant cases.
- Selected underlying documents may be available - Although docket item numbers and/or View/Download links for individual entries may appear, direct access ("instant view") is not available from those links. Instead, scroll to the end of the docket sheet; in some cases, you will see a list of Westlaw links for selected filings in the case (in WLN, click the Filings tab).
View selected documents - Under Boalt students' academic subscription, there are two general methods of finding filed documents, in full text. These generally include only a small selection of the filed documents that may be available elsewhere.
Search filings directly: click on "Directory" (top row on the Westlaw screen) and on the "Litigation" category; this will bring up a list of databases including the following five folders for documents entered or filed in various federal and state courts (on WLN, you can search only three collections, Briefs; Pleadings, Motions & Memoranda; and Trial Court Orders).
- Briefs - databases covering selected briefs (no boxers) from federal and state courts (including appellate and supreme courts). Includes combined databases - e.g., Briefs Multibase (BRIEF-ALL) - but the subfolders listed here allow you to drill down to individual databases for briefs in federal and/or state courts in a particular state, or for criminal versus civil briefs.
- Trial Court Orders - databases covering selected orders from state and a few federal trial courts. Includes combined and topical databases - e.g., State Civil Trial Court Orders (TRIALORDERS-ALL) and e-Discovery Law Trial Court Orders (EDSCVRY-TRORDERS) - or you can select a jurisdiction.
- Trial Filings - databases covering selected briefs, motions, pleadings, and expert witness filings from federal and state trial courts only (including district and bankruptcy courts, but no appellate filings). Includes combined databases - e.g., State and Federal Civil Trial Court Filings (FILING-ALL) - but the subfolders listed here allow you to drill down to individual databases for filings in federal and/or state courts in a particular state, or for criminal versus civil filings.
- Motions - a subset of the documents available from the Trial Filings databases, these databases focus on selected motions (and memoranda/briefs filed in support of motions) from federal and state trial courts only. Includes several broad topical folders, e.g., Personal Injury Trial Motions (PI-MOTIONS).
- Pleadings - a subset of the documents available from the Trial Filings databases, these databases focus on selected pleadings (e.g., complaint or amended complaint, answer, notice of removal) from federal and state trial courts only. Includes several broad topical folders, e.g., Civil Rights Trial Pleadings (CIV-PLEADINGS).
Link to Related Documents from a decision:
- Selected filings associated with a decision may be linked to the opinion found in a case database. In general, the documents listed as Related Documents represent the case-related documents appearing in one or more of the Briefs, Trial Filings, Motions and/or Pleadings databases discussed above, and are also the document links that may be listed by Westlaw at the end of the docket sheet.
- These may include both filings that relate directly to the decision (e.g., the merits briefs about the issue decided in the opinion) and other documents filed in the case (e.g., filings regarding a motion previously made in the same case but not at issue in the decision you are viewing). Related Documents may also include documents filed in both the court which issued the decision and the courts above or below the court which issued the decision.
Both docket sheets and selected underlying documents are available, but in separate databases. The docket sheet alone can be useful for locating details or confirming the existence of a filed document before using PACER or other services to get the document.
View docket sheets only - go to Legal > Court Records > Litigant, Attorney, and Judge Strategic Profile
- Enter search terms in the "Single Search - with Terms and Connectors" box at the top of the screen (click on "Search Tips" to the right for help in formulating a search).
- From the results, either click on the link to a specific case or narrow the results by applying filters from the "Refine Results" box to the left side.
View selected documents - Under Boalt students' academic subscription, there are three methods of finding filed documents. These allow access to the full text of the filings, but may cover only a small selection of the many documents that may be available elsewhere.
Legal > Court Records, Briefs and Filings
- Search for federal and state briefs, motions and pleadings.
- You can limit your search by choosing a subject-specific database (e.g., bankruptcy or environmental law) within this group.
Legal > Court Records > Litigant, Attorney, & Judge Strategic Profile
- Enter search terms in the "Single Search - with Terms and Connectors" box at the top of the screen (click on "Search Tips" to the right for help in formulating a search).
- From the results, click on the "Documents" tab and use the "Single Search" box to locate a specific document.
Link to Related Content from a decision:
- Selected filings associated with a decision may be linked to the opinion found in a case database. In general, the documents listed as Related Content represent the case-related documents appearing in one or more of the Records, Briefs and Filings databases discussed above.
- These may include both filings that relate directly to the decision (e.g., the merits briefs about the issue decided in the opinion) and other documents filed in the case (e.g., filings regarding a motion previously made in the same case but not at issue in the decision you are viewing). Related Content may also include documents filed in both the court which issued the decision and the courts above or below the court which issued the decision.